PARIS (Reuters) - France's Socialists unveiled a bill on Wednesday that would make it easier for officials to evict itinerant Roma from illegal settlements, a politically sensitive move aimed at quelling growing frustration with the semi-nomadic people.
The ruling party has been careful to distance itself from the 2010 policy of former President Nicolas Sarkozy who launched a programme to deport thousands of Roma back to Romania and Bulgaria from illegal camps, a measure the Socialists condemned and which drew censure from the European Commission.
However, the bill shows how President Francois Hollande's party has been forced to toughen its stance, conceding that measures the government brought in a year ago to help integrate Roma into mainstream society are proving ineffective.
It attempts to address the specific issue of illegal camps of the "Gens du Voyage" - meaning "travellers" - a semi-nomadic people that can include Roma, Manouches and Sinti groups and which the EU often refers to using the umbrella term of Roma.
The community numbers about 250,000-300,000, mostly French citizens. They have a special status that allows them by law to temporarily park their mobile homes in designated open-air areas with power and water hook-ups during the summer.
But reports of them parking elsewhere - sometimes on municipal sports fields - has angered conservatives and fanned the frustration felt by many taxpayers, in a time of austerity, that social services provided by the state are being abused.
The bill, opposed by some leftists, is likely to be presented to parliament after September. It calls for withholding funds from local councils who refuse to build areas for legal camps, while at the same time fast-tracking the evacuation of illegal settlements.
"What I propose is that we make the evacuation process quicker for those who haven't respected the law," Socialist lawmaker Dominique Raimbourg told Europe 1 radio.
Under current law, it is difficult to evict travellers from municipal land unless public security is at risk. Under measures introduced in August 2012 targeting large encampments of Roma around French cities, local councils must draw up a plan that includes lodging, employment and schooling alternatives for those displaced before any evacuation.
The new bill would cut out some red tape and allow police to intercede more rapidly if land is illegally occupied, officials said, without providing specific details. The Socialists cast it as a better balance between the "rights and obligations of travellers and local communities".
Anger over illegal camps surfaced again this month when the centre-right mayor of the southern city of Nice expelled one group from a sports field, vowing to "crush" the "delinquents".
Mayor Christian Estrosi, of Sarkozy's centre-right UMP party, urged other mayors to revolt against what he called leniency by the Socialists.
Resentment against Roma camps is a favourite rallying point for the far right. National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen called the Nice camp "odorous" and, ahead of municipal elections next year, other local politicians in conservative voting areas have intensified populist rhetoric.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls denounced Estrosi's comments as xenophobic and accused him of playing to the far right.
Although a 2000 law calls for municipalities of more than 5,000 inhabitants to provide open-air space for itinerant Roma, only half have done so, officials say. Human rights groups say foot-dragging is rife by mayors unwilling to welcome them.
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Editing By Nicholas Vinocur and Pravin Char